Monday, June 27, 2016

Appropriate Appropriation

Dear Korean,

I am an art student and I am currently interested in Asian art. I am really intrigued by traditional Asian art, including Indian, Chinese, Japanese and Korean but I am worried that because I’m white people may believe I am appropriating Asian culture, I truly just wish to explore this style of art, i.e. prints, ink works and make artworks that are relevant to my culture in an Asian style. I know that you do not speak for every Asian country and I also know about the many differences in culture and art but I would just like an insight to if what I am doing is in anyway offensive because the last thing I would want is to offend anyone or lead anyone to believe I am racist or ignorant.


Here, we have the biggest conversation among Asian Americans. "Cultural appropriation" is a fairly recently crafted set of ethical rules, and its boundaries are still very fuzzy. But the boundaries do become a lot more visible once we understand the core principle behind cultural appropriation.


What is cultural appropriation? Cultural appropriation is a use of cultural artifacts as a prop. People generally tend to know this much. But they are often unclear on exactly why cultural appropriation is bad. Expressed as simply as possible, here is why: cultural appropriation is bad because using cultural artifacts as a prop leads to treating the people of that culture as a prop, rather than whole persons. This is the core principle behind cultural appropriation.

Understanding this core principle alone answers many tricky questions that are emerging cultural appropriation. For example: take this infamous instance of Katy Perry's kimono get-up. Asian Americans were nearly unanimous in their denunciation, but the Japanese in Japan seemed not to care. This disconnect is easier to understand once we understand the core principle: what matters is objectification, humans being turned into a prop. Asian Americans are constantly surrounded by non-Asian Americans who always stand ready to objectify them. Japanese in Japan belong to the nation of 127 million of the same ethnicity, and are almost never in danger of being objectified by the person next to them. Of course there will be a difference in reaction between the two groups.

But the mainstream society is hardly the only one that is ignorant of the core principle; Asian American themselves likewise often are unaware of it. This leads to a variation of "magic word racism." Previously, I explained that "magic word racism" is an attempt to detect racism by the presence or absence of certain words or phrases. Utter the forbidden "Word X," and you must be considered a racist. The same dumb logic can be found in at least some charges of cultural appropriation. Using any cultural artifact in any way must be cultural appropriation, regardless of the particular context and manner of the particular usage. This is wrong, just as much as magic word racism is wrong.

What, then, is an art student like Cait to do? The first thing is: study. Context-sensitive exploration of Asian arts cannot happen if you don't know the context. The ultimate challenge is to develop an internal view of the culture that you're exploring. Through whose eyes are you viewing the culture? Are you seeing it from the perspective of the people who created that culture, or are you seeing it from the eyes of the outsider? Do you understand the sense of aesthetics that led the people to create a cultural artifact, or does your mind stop at the outside shell of the artifact? Do you see the flow of history that led to the creation of this culture, or do you only see the here and now as if the culture fell on your lap from another dimension? Are you actively exploring what the people are saying about themselves, among themselves, in their own language, or are you merely hearing what other white people are saying about the exotic colored people?

These questions naturally lead to self-reflection. What is it about Asian culture and art that attracts you, the non-Asian artist? Lesser people would simply say they "just want it"--a bad answer, because in most cases, they are simply filtering the mainstream society that stands ready to use Asian culture as a prop. Stop the unthinking, and ask this essential question for understanding yourself: why do you want what you want?

This study need not be in isolation. You will keep talking and keep creating, and learn more from the reactions. And in the process, you will offend some people--usually those who are in the hunt for magic word racism, ready to pounce on their made-up rules. Don't get discouraged; keep plugging away. Because more often than not, a sincere willingness to learn overcomes any mistakes along the way.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. I think there's any additional layer to cultural appropriation that occurs when someone in a privileged group sells stuff from non-privileged cultures. Now, the privileged group, which has access to more markets, may be crowding out the demand for the stuff from people from the original, non-privileged group.
    There's also strange stuff that happens when the stuff being appropriated is religious or symbolic in the original culture. For example, on the internet at least there are plenty of people of Indian descent who believe yoga is part of their spiritual practice and are offended when other people do it without the accompanying mental practices and spiritual beliefs. I'm an atheist, so to me it's just exercise, but why offend people when I can just stretch or do Pilates instead?

  2. Fantastic! I have been curious about this topic lately myself. I've been fascinated by different Asian cultures for many years, and would love to formally study more about them and cultures in general, and am currently navigating the mental waters of how to do that appropriately, without offense. I know that I won't be able to understand the different cultures I learn about the same way as someone who grew up in them, but can I still become a credible scholar for social problems between different cultures based on a variety of factors as a white girl from the midwest? Am I racist against myself? Thanks for posting your response to this question posed by Cait, TK, and the encouragement to keep studying and learning as we bumble along.


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  4. Great article. Thanks for writing it.

    For an artist interested in art from another culture, I think the most important thing, and also the most illuminating thing, along with self-education, would be to seek out and talk with people from that culture, who care about the art that caught your interest. Learn as much as you can from them, again, not just about the art form itself, but also the context it came from, and the reactions it has encountered when it intersects with other cultures and other art. Those conversations will give a good sense of what's cool and respectful, and what isn't.

  5. A major aspect to understanding context is the power relationship between cultures. The power relationship between the dominating white culture and Asian culture creates an underlying tension in any attempt by white culture to explore and express Asian culture, giving it a base assumption of appropriation. A common misappropriation is assuming Asian cultures are similar and lumping cultures together. A small Japanese restaurant caused quite an uproar when they hired young Korean waitresses to wear kimonos while serving. Without understanding the power relationship between Japan and Korea, the long history between the two of constant invasion, and the sexual slavery via "comfort women", there would be no way to understand why hiring Asians for an Asian restaurant wearing Asian clothing could be something to protest about.

  6. In terms of art, particularly, there's a long history of artists in the West being interested in and inspired by art from other parts of the world. Quite relevant to this case would be the huge and well-documented impact that exposure to Japanese woodblock prints had on the Impressionism movement.

    I'm also a white person with a strong interest, both aesthetically and academically, in East Asian artforms, and I've always found that people tend to take it at face value. In fact, quite a few artists/calligraphers whom I've met have been thrilled to find that a young person, regardless of background, is interested enough in their artforms to want to study and learn more about them. So, in your case, I think that as long as you present yourself as someone who is trying to learn, explore, and understand, you are unlikely to be accused of appropriation.

    Since you're particularly interested in creating art, I would say that a good step is to find people who are already practiced in that artform and well-versed in the culture to teach you the techniques. I don't have any idea what kind of environment you're in, but a good place to start would be local cultural centers for Asian groups. There are huge numbers of books on Chinese art and culture, check your local library, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art has both a massive collection (much of it digitized) and a lot of free publications that you can read online or download. Other art museums that come to mind are the Pacific Asia museum, the Asia society, the Freer-Sackler galleries at the Smithsonian, and the Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell (my alma mater!) (There are lots of questions about the legitimacy of these kinds of collections in the West, and where the artworks came from, which I won't try to deny, but for purposes of visual education, free digitized collections are invaluable.)

    If you do see this comment and can give some idea of where you are, I can try to help recommend more specific places to look for teachers and information!

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  13. I'm curious what your standard for "recent" is, since cultural appropriation has been a discussion since the 70s. It's not a new concept, imo. It's just recently been let out of academic circles into the public lexicon.

  14. I'm kinda pissed at Justin Yoon of Notre Dame. It is nice to have a fellow Korean American achieve a high level of success as their place kicker, but that post-kick ritual drives me up the wall. I bet it wan't his idea, but insead his teammates... who he couldn't say no to. Check out the 1:10 mark of this video.
    Some may claim it as a celebration of Asian culture, but I consider it offensive as hell.

  15. "For example: take this infamous instance of Katy Perry's kimono get-up. Asian Americans were nearly unanimous in their denunciation, but the Japanese in Japan seemed not to care."

    I am kind of curious, Mr. Korean, are Korean nationals/native a bit more sensitive/outspoken to this type of thing compared to Japanese natives? The TMZ and EXID incident comes to mind here. I ask this because the one who mocked Junghwa "justified" her bullshit by saying: "What?! If it were a British girl I would do a British accent."

    I think cultural appropriation is more than just practicality and usage (I disagree that it has less to do with treating others as props, and more so in creating "exoticness". It is also about the power relations between any two or more groups of people. This is in response to "Using ANY cultural artifact in ANY way must be cultural appropriation, regardless of the particular context and manner of the particular usage." Although that statement SHOULD be true, you have to remember that one group is (more) privileged, while the other not so much (or less). These are just my thoughts so far.

  16. Cultural appropriation is, by the origin and usage of the term, just another theater for competitive paternalism: a scenario to demonstrate ideological allegiance by most visibly shielding a designated "protected group" from omnipresent existential threats, typically by mundane and banal events conjectured into an ongoing genocide, and rationalized with top-down assertions of "privilege" and "power" that show more similarities with feng-shui than with social science.

  17. I still see people who say thr n word by default as racist people.

  18. why living in multicultural environtment makes so many problems. first racism, then discrimination, then cultural appropiation? can you please accept eachother?

    asian accept western caucasian, and vice versa. because we do that in Indonesia.

    i'll say she's dark and curly because she is. i say fair and wavy because she is. accept yourself, accept other people.

    people see i am fat, dark skinned so what thats me.

    so if african is black. and asian is yellow. narrow eyes, eating mie, ramen ect, and african has big body and tall. so what?

    what a confusing life.


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